Apr 20 2020

Crew Dragon Launches in May

Amid the current crisis there is some good news and significant progress – America is returning to crewed spaceflight after a 9 year gap. Scheduled for May 27th is the first crewed mission of the Space X Dragon capsule, which will send two astronauts to the ISS,  Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Technically this is the last test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule (the mission is called Demo-2). Last March the Demo-1 mission sent an uncrewed Dragon capsule to the ISS. The two astronauts will remain for an “extended” stay on the ISS, and then return in the capsule, splashing down in the Atlantic and recovered by a Space X recovery vessel.

If successful this will mark the return of America’s ability to send astronauts into orbit. It will also mark the first time a commercial company has done so, and is a significant milestone in the commercialization of space flight. The launch will be done in cooperation with NASA, lifting off from Pad 39A, which is the same one that launched Apollo and the Space Shuttle. The capsule will also be lifted to the ISS by a Falcon 9 rocket, which is also made by Space X. This is the rocket that can land again vertically and be reused.

There has been some back and forth on whether or not the Crew Dragon capsules themselves can be reused. Initially Musk predicted that the capsule could be reused many times, reducing the cost of getting astronauts into space. Then in 2018 they quietly backed away from this goal. The reason is that after a salt-water landing, it is time consuming (a year) and expensive to service the capsule for reuse. In order for capsule reuse to be practical you need a dry landing, which was the original plan of Space X. Apparently that has proven technologically difficult, so Space X is settling for salt-water landings, which means no reuse. However, the Crew Dragon capsule can more easily be refurbished and reused for Cargo Dragon missions without astronauts. Therefore, they will be used for this purpose. Space X has reused multiple Cargo Dragon capsules multiple time.

But now Space X is again claiming it will reuse the Crew Dragon capsules:

Shotwell also noted that SpaceX is planning to reuse its Crew Dragon capsules. That was in doubt previously, as the leader of NASA’s Commercial Crew program said in 2018 that SpaceX would use a new capsule each time the company flew the agency’s astronauts.

“We can fly crew more than once on a Crew Dragon,” Shotwell said. “I’m pretty sure NASA is going to be okay with reuse.”

We’ll see what happens.

Meanwhile, Space X is not the only game in town. Part of the plan to farm out low Earth orbit to private companies is that NASA can spread out its bets to multiple companies, the second being Boeing and its Starliner capsule. Boeing has not gotten nearly as much public attention as Space X, partly because they don’t match the flashy marketing of Elon Musk, but also they are a little bit behind their timetable. Boeing completed its first uncrewed test flight last year, but a software glitch meant it was stranded in the wrong orbit and never made it to the ISS. NASA recently announced it will require Boeing to do a second uncrewed test flight this year before its first crewed test flight. So Boeing is about a year behind Space X in crewed flight.

However, Boeing never abandoned its plans to have a reusable crewed capsule. It claims its Starliner capsule can be reused up to 10 times. To support this claim, after the problematic test launch last year, the Starliner did complete a successful dry landing in the desert.

So this year will hopefully see the first successful crewed mission from American soil, and next year hopefully we will have two commercial companies each able to put astronauts into orbit and onto the ISS. They already have the capability of sending cargo to the ISS. This will fulfill’s NASA’s plans to essentially cede low Earth orbit to commercial companies so it can focus on deep space missions to the Moon and Mars. This plan also achieved the goal of lowering the cost of getting stuff and people into low Earth orbit – which is the main goal of reusability.

This is an important milestone not to be underestimated. We are definitely moving into the next phase of space flight, and despite the unavoidable glitches, things are actually going very well. Both companies have essentially been successful in their plans. And let’s not forget Blue Origin, which is testing its suborbital system, New Shepard, with plans to develop an orbital system of its own. By the end of the decade we may have three commercial companies capable of putting people into orbit.

Meanwhile NASA is doing what it planned – developing a deep space craft, the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System. Orion will be sent on a test mission this year around the Moon as part of its Artemis program – a program to return astronauts to the Moon. The test mission will also include a service module built by the European space agency. If all goes well the first crewed mission of the Orion will be in 2022.

No matter what this is sure to be an exciting decade for human spaceflight.


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